Have you ever had someone look at you in shock and say “I can’t believe you never played ___!”? That’s what this column is about. I’m an old fart gamer experiencing some of the classic retro games for the first time – and rather than having something profound or meaningful to say about it, I’m just going to share my initial thoughts upon playing a game most others have already deemed a classic. Hope you enjoy my newcomer insight – and ignorance – to games I should have played by now!
This week, I’ll be talking about Punch Out!! for the NES.
When Punch Out!! came out for the NES, I as far too young to really appreciate it; for one thing, my mommy wouldn’t let me touch more violet video games until an older age (if she only knew what kind of games would be coming out today), and when I did sneak a play at a friend’s house I lacked the motor skills to truly understand how to play it. Like Super Mario 64 and other games from my childhood, I added it to a mental list of games I’d probably be able to beat when I was older.
Also like Super Mario 64, I was dead wrong, and multiple games under my belt giving me improved twitch reflexes still didn’t really prepare me all that much. My first time playing for this article, I Game Over’ed to Glass Joe – which, for those who don’t know, is the first opponent.
But part of the reason that I had such difficulty is the same reason this game can be somewhat charming: that there aren’t a lot of games like it. You’re a tiny little boxer against a world of comparatively gigantic opponents, and unlike them you have a very limited pool of moves: left and right jabs, left and right body blows, an uppercut, blocking, and dodging. This game was also made during an era where it was somewhat assumed players would read the instruction manual, which meant a lot of me bumbling about to figure out the controls could have been avoided when the game was in its prime. I had no idea what the stars and hearts did, and lost several times because of this. Hearts are consumed when you take a hit or block an attack, and if you lose all your hearts your protagonist, Little Mac, gets exhausted and becomes unable to do anything but dodge and block until he regains hearts through dodging. For about five or six Game Over’s worth of playing, I just saw this mode as the pink screen of death where I waited for the opponent to KO me.
But the first time I beat Piston Honda, the first title match, I was ecstatic. The training montage that came after with Little Mac and his trainer “Doc” Louis running through New York City perfectly encapsulated the feeling of having trained up to this moment, truly earning this victory. This game is the kind of game where pattern recognition really hits its stride as a gaming trope; the game does get progressively easier once you learn each respective opponent’s weakness and fighting style, but you have to pay close attention to each one. You can also watch a speed run and more or less mimic what they do, once you’ve played a few matches.
The further I got, the more I felt a combination of amused nostalgia and slight shock for how offensive some of the characters were. Many, such as Piston Honda and Don Flamenco, are racial caricatures that portray obvious stereotypes in both looks and quotes (not to mention that Glass Joe, the one that is the weakest, is from France). Having grown up from this era I can appreciate that these jokes were considered harmless in their original era, though I have to admit that years of being exposed to Tumblr and Jezebel have slowly forced me to re-evaluate just why I found those jokes funny to begin with. Still, in this game it is a more passive racism; not so much making one culture as obviously inferior, but more of a “lol French people, mirite?” sort of feel. And it’s usually only for a moment; this game is all about the ring, so the catch phrases are almost immediately forgotten once all your attention is pointed towards watching the opponent’s punches.
I imagine sequels for this game were a challenge for the developers. If they lose too many of the old characters in an attempt to adapt to modern culture’s awareness and racial sensitivity, then they alienate the nostalgia factors that are good for marketing. And yet, to keep them in will anger the people who have become progressive over the years and also cost business, forcing them to reach an awkward middle ground (I haven’t played the more recent ones, but I do know that many of the characters from this game return). While probably not the only reason, I would guess that this had something to do with the over a decade of inactivity between sequels.
Of course, the main reason it becomes a little easy for Punch Out!! fans to overlook this or not think too hard about it comes down to the very principle that this game is really fun. This game is ideal for the type of player that finds that “just one more try” feeling to be invigorating and satisfying; after enough losses, each consecutive loss will convince you that you can get it the next time because you’re finally starting to figure the opponent out.